Yoga is an excellent form of exercise which builds strength and flexibility. The practice is also known for promoting general wellness by supporting the mind-body connection. Yet because this ancient exercise has deep meditative, spiritual or mystical roots, many people wonder if yoga is a form of religion. Which begs the question: can atheists practice yoga? How about Christians, Jews or Muslims?
The question of whether yoga is a religion is not a new one. It has been asked and answered many times, often with different responses. The most common answer is that yoga can be combined with religion or easily practiced without religious belief.
Though Americans often think of yoga as one specific form of exercise, the term actually refers to a wide range of yoga styles. Each style has its own benefits. Ashtanga is a more energetic, vigorous form of yoga. Iyengar uses longer holds and props to let practitioners deepen their poses, and Bikram uses a sauna-like environment to help burn calories fast.
While Ashtanga, Iyengar and Bikram (or variations of each) are yoga styles that are commonly found in the United States, there are many other practices, including several that are more oriented toward spirituality than physical exercise.
The spiritual or meditative elements of yoga mean many different things to different people. To me, and to many others, the meditative aspect of yoga is an inward journey. It is a way to find inner balance and personal strength. Still, as an atheist, some comments made in yoga classes can make me uncomfortable. Fortunately, the answer is usually as simple as finding a new yoga instructor.
Some yoga instructors rely more heavily on mysticism and spirituality (e.g. chakras or kundalini). On the other end of spectrum, many yoga instructors (at least those in the West) also struggle with yoga's connection to spirituality, religion and god(s). Finding a yoga instructor who has a compatible outlook can make a difference in the effectiveness of the practice.
In my own Ashtanga-style classes, I've been very comfortable with my instructor's approach to teaching. Like many instructors, she promotes and supports each student's personal journey--both in the physical and meditative aspects. We chant an occasional om and offer namaste at the end of class, and that doesn't bother me.*
There's generally a moment at the end of class where everyone moves their hands, in prayer position, in front of their "third eye" (forehead) while the teacher speaks briefly about being open to our intuitive selves. During my first class, I felt a little uncomfortable with this concept, but then I realized that the "intuition" of my "third eye" can easily be compared to the emotional brain that is described in Jonah Leher's book How We Decide. I have a tendency to over-analyze pretty much everything, so this quiet moment reminds me to trust the intuitive side of my mind as well.
For atheists, I don't see anything wrong with practicing yoga--and even exploring its meditative aspects--without ascribing to any underlying religion.
When it comes to believers, some Christians are concerned about the threat of yoga on their beliefs, Islam has banned yoga for Muslims, and at least some Jews seems to also worry that yoga is not kosher. But many people can a different approach, and believers of any faith will have to find those answers within themselves.
Yoga offers many health benefits, particularly when combined with meditation and controlled breathing (pranayama). In my opinion, the spiritual or meditative aspects of various yoga styles do not have to be in conflict with an agnostic, atheist, humanist or otherwise secular lifestyle. But deciding to practice yoga is ultimately a personal choice.
* While I'm not religious, I've read many beautiful and inspiring passages in the Upanishads, which may make it a bit easier for me to accept the oms and namastes during class.